Would Assad Really Use Chemical Weapons Again?

June 27, 2017
Satellite photo released by US Defense Department showing damage to Shayrat Airfield after US Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on April 6 | AFP

This is a liveblog and rolling analysis of the White House’s announcement that Syria may be planning to use chemical weapons. It’s principal author, James Miller, has extensively covered Syria since March 2011 and his work on the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack has been studied by journalists and academics.

Vladimir Putin is pivoting toward the Middle East as the United States pulls back from the region. We will examine this dynamic in our new column on the Middle East.

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Be Skeptical Of The White House’s Posturing On Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Working from the information that is currently available, there is no way to independently verify or debunk the White House’s claim that Syria is preparing to use chemical weapons. If true, the consequences for future victims could obviously be catastrophic, but there could be even larger consequences for the entire world since two US presidents in a row have identified chemical weapons as a red line deserving on military retaliation if crossed.

The problem, however, is that this author sees no reason to trust the word of this administration on its own merits. Though some clarification has come out through more trustworthy offices like the Pentagon, the White House, the language used is softer. 

Buzzfeed reports on the Pentagon’s statements on the matter:

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters that in the last 24 hours there was evidence that the regime was preparing for the “possible use of chemical weapons” based on activity at Shayrat Airfield, the same base that the US military struck in April over suspected chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians. There was evidence that the regime was moving specific airplanes on the airfield that could be used in such an attack, according to Davis.

A US defense official told BuzzFeed News that there were other indications beyond plane movements, but would not give more specifics.

“Possible use of chemical weapons” is not quite the same as “potential use” of them. The Pentagon statements seem to suggest that there is activity at the base, and that activity might have something to do with the use of chemical weapons. The inference in the White House statement is stronger.

But additional reporting in that same Buzzfeed article suggests that the White House’s statement was made ahead of the assessment of key intelligence and military agencies which were not prepared to make such a statement themselves:

Though evidence of a possible imminent attack existed, the channels at the Pentagon which would usually have coordinated on last night’s statement were left in the dark. Many officials across the Pentagon did not know what the White House was referring to until Tuesday morning.

The White House pushed back on reports of confusion in a statement released on Tuesday morning. “In response to several inquiries regarding the Syria statement issued last night, we want to clarify that all relevant agencies — including State, DoD, CIA and ODNI –were involved in the process from the beginning,” the statement read. “Anonymous leaks to the contrary are false.”

But five US defense officials reached by BuzzFeed News on Monday night said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, including one US Central Command official who had “no idea” about its origin. The officials said they were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement. Usually such statements are coordinated across the national security agencies and departments before they are released. 

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White House Says Syria May Be Preparing Another Chemical Attack, Warns Assad Will "Pay A Heavy Price"

Syria appears to be preparing a new chemical weapons attack against its citizens, the White House said Monday, warning that if the weapons are again used, the US will make the Syrian government "pay a heavy price." White House press secretary Sean Spicer revealed the news in a statement late Monday.

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Jun 28, 2017 00:48 (GMT)

Furthermore the implications for such a statement, regardless of its merits, could be extensive. There’s no reason to discount the claim entirely, but there are reasons to be skeptical.

Can The White House Be Trusted?

1. Despite numerous chemical weapons attack, neither the Obama nor Trump administration has ever issued a preemptive statement like this. In the past, US intel only learned of major chemical attacks during or after their execution. 

2. The Trump administration is effectively admitting that their April 6 airstrikes on the Shayrat airbase were ineffective at diminishing the chemical threat. In fact, that is exactly what this author argued at the time. To make matters worse, the Trump administration initially misrepresented the effectiveness of those airstrikes and had to walk back their claims. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis initially said that 20 percent of Syria’s airforce was destroyed. That number was wildly erroneous. In fact, a very small portion of Assad’s airforce was affected, perhaps only 20% of the unit in question, and experts believe the strike had little operational impact. Open-source assessments of the days following the US strike indicate that Russia increased sorties to make up for the damage to the Syrian fleet, and overall bombing against civilians using conventional or even incendiary weapons continued to increase. Those assessments could be verified by the US government, of course, but that has not happened since this claim would undercut the official White House narrative.

3. By making this claim now the White House is admitting that they know where chemical weapons in Syria are stored, weapons that should have been destroyed by a Kremlin-brokered deal in 2013-14, but the US has not taken action to address this threat. Why wouldn’t the US destroy the sarin gas if the White House knows where it is stored? The obvious answer is that destroying an underground stockpile could spread the gas. However, the Shayrat base is fairly remote (map), any gas released would dissipate rather quickly, minimizing the threat. Furthermore, this administration has shown little regard for civilian casualties in other parts of Syria, so restraint here is uncharacteristic. Additionally, sarin in particular is made up of two precursors which need to be mixed together before use. If the elements have not been mixed, destroying them with a bunker-busting bomb would likely have limited consequences.

4. Yes, Assad has used this gas before, but it is highly risky considering that it could trigger a US military response.

With this in mind, let’s briefly look at what happened in the two most-famous sarin attacks — April’s incident, and the 2013 Ghouta attack.  

In 2013, the Syrian rebels had backed the Assad regime up against a cliff. Armed with Croatian weapons supplied by a secret CIA program, rebels had captured huge swaths of the area around Damascus, and indeed much of southern Syria, adding to the already-large amount of rebel-held territory in northern Syria.

Based on my extensive reporting in 2013 it became clear that a relatively small group of Syria commanders made the decision to use artillery shells filled with sarin against the front lines in Damascus. Other reporters noted that according to unnamed US officials, intercepted communications showed that Moscow was unaware of the chemical attack before it was too late to stop it. The incident proved that members of the Assad regime were as disorganized and chaotic as they were ruthless. 

But after this, things changed. In the four years since that attack, Moscow and Tehran have deeply entrenched themselves in day-to-day control of events in Syria at many levels. Syria’s military, once disorganized and broken, has been reformed — a puppet state, albeit an imperfect one with two puppet masters.

This brings us to the second “red line,” the April attack. It seems unlikely that such an attack, launched by Syria’s air force and not by artillery strikes, was done without the knowledge of the Kremlin. Arguably, then, this was a calculated move by Moscow. After the use of chemical weapons Trump effectively reiterated Obama’s “red line” argument that the use of chemical weapons, and seemingly no other crime, could spark US intervention in Syria. But Assad is also now directly protected by the Russian air force and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A war with Syria could mean a war with Iran and Russia.

Of course, it is possible that Assad is indeed planning another chemical weapons attack. This is a regime that has no respect for human life. But if it is planning such an attack there is a strong possibility that this is a calculated move by the three governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria — a trap. Is Donald Trump prepared to navigate such a delicate situation?

Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security sums up just a few reasons why Americans should be skeptical of the Trump administration’s claims here, even if the basic premise — that Assad is prepping a chemical attack — is to be believed: 

James Miller
Sean Spicer Warns That Syrian Government Is Prepping Chemical Attacks
White House Press Secretary released the following statement last night warning that the US is aware of “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack” by the Assad regime… similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.”

In the April attack against Khan Sheikhoun, sarin gas was suspected agent that led to the deaths of at least 74 people.

Spicer’s statement is unique — the US has never warned of such an incident in Syria before it happened — and potentially critically important as it could be a harbinger of a coming attack, or a justification for further US airstrikes in Syria.

The Syrian government has used sarin gas on multiple occasions, including two mass-casualty events: April’s incident, and the 2013 sarin attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus which likely killed more than 1400 people. Beyond this, it has used chlorine gas on countless occasions. Most of Syria’s dead, however, have been killed by conventional weapons, and most of those who have died in Syria have died at the hands of the Syrian government and its allies.

Read more on the Ghouta attack here: 

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Stop Saying Only 355 Died in Chemical Weapons Attack

How many people died in the August 21st chemical weapons attack? In their official report, the United States government has said that they've documented at least 1,429 deaths, of which at least 426 are children. How do we know this is accurate?

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Jun 27, 2017 20:26 (GMT)

A US official told CBS that an increase in underground activity was detected at the Shayrat airfield in Homs province, the same facility that the US says is responsible for the April attack. According to CBS, the unnamed official said that US airstrikes against that facility that followed that chemical attack spared the bunker due to concerns that the toxic material stored there could spread.

According to that report, the US has also picked up increased communications by the Syrian unit responsible for the chemical weapons, though CBS adds that according to their source it is not clear if that communication was due to preparations for another attack or something else like an inspection.  

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White House releases ominous statement about another possible Syria chemical attack

WASHINGTON — The White House says it has found "potential" evidence that Syria is preparing for another chemical weapons attack. Press secretary Sean Spicer issued an ominous statement Monday evening that says the U.S. "has identified potential preparations" for another chemical attack by the Assad government that it says "would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children."

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Jun 27, 2017 20:31 (GMT)

The warning to Syria reportedly took place during a call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. CBS reports that Lavrov underscored that Russia, too, wants to prevent chemical attacks, but classified the US statement and recent US airstrikes on Iran-backed militia forces in Syria and the shooting down of a Syrian military jet to be aggressive moves. 

The Russian government also condemned last night’s statement by the White House as “unacceptable.” Reuters reports:

“I am not aware of any information about a threat that chemical weapons can be used,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“Certainly, we consider such threats to the legitimate leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic unacceptable.”

We will provide rolling analysis throughout the day.

James Miller